“We are going to see the parent-teacher.” That’s what a couple tells their children when they come and see me. In fact, these parents are talking about how they relate in what could be called traditional couples counselling. The reason they are coming is to reduce damage on their children from their distressed relationship. This seems to be a growing trend. It is based on my observations from more than 25 years of counselling families: parents more often working to fix their relationship, mindful of the impacts on the children. Yes, it is a limited sample. Yes, there may be times when it is better for parents to be apart than together to reduce exposing children to conflict. Still, it is encouraging to see the dedication of parents willing to unravel the knots in their relationships, let go of old hurts and learn new patterns and skills, because they understand the trickle down effect on their kids.
The shift is somewhat nuanced. I used to see more parents determined to separate, but wanting to help their kids cope. Now I see more who are determined to stay and improve their relationship. Parents are the tectonic plates on which the emotional lives of children rest. What’s encouraging to me is that more parents seem to truly understand this. They see a direct link between their relationships and their children’s emotions and they are deeply concerned about it. Dates, playfulness, kindness and deep dialogue between parents are a balm that soothes the soul of developing and dependent young minds.
There is talk about “helicopter” parents, hovering over their children, obsessed with their lives. While it’s good for parents to be involved in the lives of their children, it is equally and perhaps more important that parents have their own lives.
Chilliwack has had a partnership of agencies and churches, along with University of the Fraser Valley and Trinity Western University that for 16 years have offered courses for couples, branded “Boot Camp” for couples. There are three courses. If a couple took all three it would amount to 30 hours of their time. Less than a work week. Participants have often lamented that they didn’t learn these skills in school as they are so critical to their most important investment – their family.
Here are few of the key skills;
• Self-sooth – learn to self-calm so you can be rational and see the other’s point of view
• Complain well – speak for yourself without using words that evoke blame or criticism
• Be a softie – see the “soft” emotions that underlie hard feelings. For example, the soft emotion of hurt often lies beneath the hard emotion, anger.
• Interpret protest accurately – the raging spouse is usually someone who is insecure about whether they matter and are making a protest in a bid to have their anxiety alleviated.
• Cultivate friendship – create a love map and intentionally foster fond feelings towards the other
• Create a shared vision – “Dreams within conflict” is a phrase used to describe how poorly articulated and resolved life goals become sources of ongoing conflict in relationships.
Dr. Robert Lees, R.Psych is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry for Children and Family Development in Chilliwack.